Jun 12, 2020
Dr. Krishna Pakala is today's guest and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering at Boise State University. He is the Faculty in Residence for the Engineering and Innovation Living Learning Community and the Director for the Industrial Assessment Center at Boise State. He is the recipient of David S. Taylor Service to Students Award and Golden Apple Award from Boise State University. He is also the recipient of ASEE Pacific Northwest Section (PNW) Outstanding Teaching Award, ASEE Mechanical Engineering division’s Outstanding New Educator Award and several course design awards. Dr. Pakala puts students first and prioritizes getting to know them as whole people.
This week was also the week of the #Strike4BlackLives, founded by Dr. Brian Nord and Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein and many more, following the most recent wave of protests around anti-Black racism and policing. If you would like to learn more, in addition to that hashtag please check out #BlackInTheIvory, founded by Joy Melody Woods and Dr. Sharde Davis, as well as the websites shutdownstem.com and particlesforjustice.org.
Dr. Kate Clancy (Intro): Wednesday June 10th was the Strike for Black lives, organized by a number of extraordinary Black scholars. I hope those of you who have work to do, like me, used it as a day to educate yourselves and plan the work we all should be doing to end Anti-Black racism in academia and beyond. To learn more, please visit shutdownstem.com, particlesforjustice.org, and take a look at the Twitter hashtag ‘blackintheivory.’
This is the chance to make the constant work of the Black scholars visible and I hope it gave, at least some of them, a day of rest.
I have struggled with what else to say here because it’s a hard balance between trying to avoid being performative in public allyship and making sure you know people are listening while you try to get better privately.
I do want to say though that it is nothing compared to actually trying to survive anti-Black racism so this is a rather small source of discomfort. While I practice anti-racism in my daily life and, make lots of mistakes, leadership in this area, as a white woman, is very much not my lane. Please check out the show notes of this episode at courageous-scientist.libsyn.com for more resources and experts in anti-racist work.
Clancy: Hello and welcome to the Courageous Scientist Podcast. This is Kate Clancy, anthropology professor and aspiring courageous scientist. This podcast is a single season sanity project that arose from the global pandemic.
I am releasing short interviews with aspiring scientists every week for the next few months. I want us to remember that we are connected and that we are all capable of doing good. I want us to notice that there is good work being done right now and many of us unable to do our work will pick it back up again soon. I ask each guest three questions: what brought you to science? How do you show courage in science? And what would you like others to know about being a courageous scientist?
My guests show me what it means to have clear values, to stand in them even when scared, and how to approach obstacles. That doesn’t mean all courageous scientists overcome all obstacles, it means that we know that how we come out the other side is not an indicator of our worth.
Today I am bringing you an interview with Dr. Krishna Pakala, an assistant professor in the department of mechanical and biomedical engineering at Boise State University where he’s been since 2012. He is the faculty in residence for the Engineering and Innovation Living Learning Community. He is the director for the industrial assessment center at Boise State University. Dr. Pakala has also served as the inaugural faculty associate for mobile learning and the faculty associate for accessibility and universal design for learning.
Thank you so much for joining me today Krishna.
Dr. Krishna Pakala: Thank you so much Kate.
Clancy: As you know, this interview is pretty tightly defined. I only have three questions for you. So, can you just start by just telling me what brought you to science.
Pakala: So, in India growing up, there are two pathways for people to take. One is whether you get into engineering, if you’re good with mathematics or you become a doctor if you like biology, physics chemistry kind of stuff. And I was eldest in my family and none of my family members were in engineering, so I decided to do engineering because I was very good with math. So that’s how I got into mechanical engineering.
Clancy: And now you focus on engineering education. Do you want to say a little about what brought you along that path.
Pakala: Sure. I never thought I would, you know, be in a professorial field or in engineering education per se. You know I always thought my degrees would eventually lead me to work in the industry, but my grandmother used to always say that one day that I would become a professor. And I asked her why and she said, ‘Because you were born on September 5th which is celebrated as a teacher’s day in India. Her husband, my grandfather died at a young age with a heart attack in his sleep and he was a educator, he was a school administrator, like a school principle, and she said that, ‘I can see that one day you will relive his passion and you will continue his legacy.’
And then it’s so coincidental that right after my masters at Arizona State, my advisor said, ‘You should pursue a teaching career because you have done well as a graduate student. There has been good feedback from students. I think we need a lot of people like you. While I was not totally sure about myself, that I would, you know, have me a PhD and I was scared because there was nobody in my family who got it. And then I went to University of Wyoming and when I went there, before I went there… I didn’t even know Wyoming was a state. And then, on top of that, there was the climate and everything but it was a great state school for education so I eventually got my PhD and then I was applying for both industry and economic places and the rest is history. Boise State was the first place to give me and offer and I never looked back since then.
Clancy: I actually haven’t been to Boise yet but I have heard that it is really beautiful out there so that’s one of the places on my Midwest bucket list for sure.
Pakala: Oh right now this is a perfect time to be in this city. I am what as known as a faculty in residence so I oversee a living learning community of first year students. Right now, everybody’s gone because of the, you know, situation so I have a river, within few feet right outside my apartment. The football stadium is right in front of me right now, I’m looking at it right now. The basketball stadium is right next to me, so it’s like we are nestled in this beautiful campus.
Clancy: That’s so nice to hear. So, tell me, how have you shown courage in science?
Pakala: When I first started, I started as a lecturer. As a lecturer with primarily teaching responsibilities. And then I went to a seminar or a welcome meeting by our former dean and there was something she said that stuck with me since then, she said, ‘We have and unshakable focus on student learning.’ And I said, ‘Yeah. That is something, that… I kind of like that and I think that is something I can go with that. I think I can do a lot of sort of things under that umbrella.’ Then my former department chair was very supportive and said, ‘You know, you have the full freedom to innovate the way you do things even though you are new. We want people to, kind of, be courageous and try new things.’
And that’s when I started seeing the value of technology in the education and how much we actually don’t use it. You know for some people a white board or a marker right now is technology. For them, transitioning from a chalk board to a white board. But there is so much that has evolved.
Right now, if you look at COVID-19 pandemic, if many of us were somehow thinking how to reincarnate popular technology more so for student learning and teaching, I think we would not be panicking now. I think we just took things for granted. We thought these physical structures would still be there which, they will still be there, but I think that really helped, for me to be really at the forefront right now to say that we can handle this. I think that a lot of engagement, a lot of interaction, a lot of how we digitally connect with people because we all value human connections and there has never been more of an important time in our history that we somehow still keep those connections intact, even though we may have to do it digitally. But I think there are platforms set up right now, as long as we use it to spread positive message, that we can connect.
So I have been really focusing on developing, you know, technological solutions for education. So I moved from a lecturer position and I said, ‘If I’m doing all of this and publishing, I probably should be in a tenure track position.’ But then, there is no typical tenure track position for people who are in engineering education if you don’t have that. So it has been a challenge to convince people that if you want to be innovative, you also have to be innovative in how you leverage people’s strengths. Right? Because nobody said this is how somebody should be working towards helping an institution. We just came up with that and we just… there is even randomness right now. So I kind of try to convince people, push push push, and finally to a point where they saw the value in it. Our entire department and our team created a position where I could focus on the bias scholarship model of learning where it would be looking at teaching and learning. So that’s when I transitioned to an assistant professor with the focus, primarily on looking at how do you enhance teaching and learning. In my case, it ended up, mostly, looking at how do I bring in interactions both in and out of the classroom that can help with the progression of the students. I view this general student cycle, because of my experiences being on campus overseeing first year students, is to look at what do we do to recruit our students from high school or even before that? How do you, kind of, bring them into your classroom? How to we keep them there? How do you make sure their progress towards that? How do you make sure they enjoy? How do you make sure they get a job? And then how do you still connect them as regular people?
That’s the cycle that, I think, I want to be a part of. I just don’t want to be somebody who will just treat everybody as a number. I just think I don’t, I won’t have fun. I didn’t get into this profession if I didn’t think that was the case. If it is all transactional then I don’t think this would have been mine. So there were a few things along this journey, as you can imagine, where I had to show a lot of courage. I had to be… I wouldn’t use the word ‘political’ but be somebody who would say, ‘Okay I know that I am capable, but maybe I don’t know how to convince you or how to make the structure smooth but I am going to keep asking the question until you tell me, ‘No, we won’t do it for you.’ Right? So that really taught me how still go for your dreams because there was a time in my life where I had a very bad experience with an administrator to the point where they were questioning how I was doing things. They were saying, ‘Oh, you should not do it this way.’ When the 99% of my general population of students were very happy. While I respect one or two students whose opinion of their displeasure, I just didn’t understand what was the administrator’s rule. Was it to help everybody through the system and, kind of, say that this is how we have to go or almost to the point of harassing them? Right?
Then I actually said, ‘Maybe I should think beyond just being a faculty member. Maybe I should also think about, ‘How can I also be more student-centric in the future being an administrator? So that’s when that person actually created this fire in me so now I have expanded my horizon to say I am going to be involved more. I am not going to just do classes, my scholarship. I am going to be involved in supporting the athletics. I am going to be involved in supporting the other entities on campus and I am going to just have fun. You know?
Like right now I am almost living as if there is no tomorrow. What can I do right now to just make an impact and make sure that we all remember each other for something, even if I am not here tomorrow. Sorry if that was a long winded answer. (Laughs)
Clancy: No that was a wonderful answer. I really love how your definition of courage really centers around… well around centering students and deciding that that service is a really big part of your identity and your work. It’s wonderful. So my last question to you then is: what do you want other people to know about what is means to be a courageous scientist?
Pakala: I think courage can be something where, it keeps you going. For example, for me, the center of my focus, my energy is my students and student success is at the core of everything I do. There are times where people say, ‘Oh Krishna, you do too much. This is classified as service,’ or this or that. I don’t see that. I see everything to be aligned. If I am helping a scholarship committee, you don’t know how much impact that generates bringing the student in. So there is… everything is connected.
I think that in my case, I have never imagined I would be in a tenured track position. To be honest, people still say, ‘Oh, you have to be careful. You have to do this to get tenure,’ and stuff and I’m at a point where tenure should not be about that. This should not be another PhD experience where people are saying, ‘Oh, we have one chance to get you and we are going to make it harder.’ I think this is the time where we should help folks like me and everybody else to say we want to empower students. We want to teach our students about how to not fear failure, why it is okay to fail, and what are you going to do to come back, and how we are going to provide you with opportunity to come back. Right? And that should not change even for a faculty member. So, I would say that… for all the administrators to continue to empower their faculty members so they can be courageous. For students to challenge the faculty members so that they show courage, so that they can be motivated. And for the faculty to say that they believe in the mission of the university and to support our students.
I think that if we are worried about how our administrators reviewing us think. I think we are losing the bigger impacts that we could do if we focused on thousands of students that will make an impact. Who will probably remember you more, who will probably credit you for even a single thing you did unlike other things that they may or may not care. I think that’s where the courage should be to enjoy the simple things that you can connect with your students and your other colleagues rather than trying to, you know, look for checking a box.
Clancy: Yeah and I feel like what I am hearing from you is… and this is coming up in a lot of the interviews actually is, really centering around what matters to you as opposed to centering your work around some outcome that’s defined by other people.
Clancy: So, yeah.
Pakala: Yeah, I think the other challenge being in my position, or in general, you know right now with everything going on, I’m from a foreign country, I still don’t feel secure to be here and even though people talk about diversity and inclusion, I know that I have to do ten times more than other people and still, when the time comes, it’s not… you know it’s good… you know that’s your job. You’re doing it, cool. But I feel like, we need to figure out a way; especially in the U.S where, it is diverse even though people complain about diversity, it’s more of the probably diverse country I’ve ever seen in terms of international population stuff but I feel like we need to leverage it more and support each other right now more than ever.
You see how some things are happening around the country and we should channel our energy in our mission rather than something that is not defined by us, it’s by birth that we are coming in. There needs to be more visibility for everybody, them and people from the LGBTQ community.
They keep saying those things but, unless you see it at your level, unless somebody comes to your door and says, ‘Do you want to take this responsibility.’ I won’t believe those things. Okay there is no accountability. If I left, I leave the problem here. If I stay and be bold, maybe this will not happen to anybody. Maybe I can be more courageous to empower other people.
Clancy: Right. Well thank you for your work. Thank you for sticking with it. At times it is tempting for many of us to walk away. I really appreciate it. So, Dr. Krishna Pakala. Thank you again for joining me.
Pakala: Thank you.
Clancy (Outro): Thanks for joining me for the Courageous Scientist Podcast. Like I said this is a short-term passion project to keep me sane during the pandemic so, I don’t want your money. Please do tell budding scientist and scientist educators of all ages about the podcast because, I think they’ll like it. And if you have the means, send a few bucks the way of your local food bank. Please also do check out the show notes at courageous-scientist.libsyn.com (That’s L-I-B-S-Y-N) because I really you to learn about these scientists I have been interviewing. They’re telling you a little about their lived experience but they’re also all amazing scientists. I want you to learn about their scholarship. Alright, thanks for listening.